Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Top Five Films About Eighties Britain

After the swinging sixties and the sad seventies, the selfish eighties is a decade best forgotten. At home Margaret Thatcher, egged on by Rupert Murdoch's gutter press, deployed a militarised police force to crush the miners and the Travellers. She rewarded the bankers, devastated the post-Industrial north and privatised anything that wasn't nailed down. Britain was a divided, racist, homophobic place in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade socialism, indeed society, seemed to be a thing of the past.

Or so it seemed at the time. But that's not how the decade looks now. The Iron Lady still has her fans, but never have her ideas been so unpopular. Who now thinks we should reward the bankers or privatise the public sector? Culturally, the right may have won the battle, but it seems to have lost the war, and the way the decade is remembered in film reflects that.

Here is my top five list of films that characterise the decade.

5. Billy Elliott (2000)

Even though it contains a song hoping for the death of Margaret Thatcher, I think I probably better just admit that Billy Elliott just isn't my type of film, which is why it's only at number five. It's not that it isn't well written, well acted and well made. It certainly is. It's not just that Billy's dad is shown as the sort of wife-beating, son-beating, ignorant, male working class stereotype that The Sun spent its time trying to cultivate. The problem is something else.

The very gritty politics of the era is realistically shown, and makes a very poignant background to the story. It's also completely clear which side of the political fence the film sits on. But keeping a political event of the magnitude of the Miners Strike in the background just doesn't seem right. Okay, it's not as bad as slavery being the background to a cheesy love story in Gone With The Wind, but almost. The happy ending, when a grown up Billy is seen on stage, should have been followed by a look at what was happening in Durham at the time: the unemployment, the drugs and the utter despair of anyone who lacks the skills to move to London.

4. Hidden Agenda 

Perhaps the most important thing about Hidden Agenda is that it relaunched the film career of Ken Loach. He'd put himself on the cultural map in the sixties with Cathy Come Home and Kes, but had spent the next twenty years making acclaimed, but largely ignored, documentaries. Hidden Agenda though started a run of amazing films that continues with Riff Raff, through Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, to the best film of recent years, I, Daniel Blake.

If Billy Elliott shows the effect of Thatcherism at home, Hidden Agenda deals with the 'near abroad', the long running Troubles in Northern Ireland. We know now that the eighties were the time when the IRA was making the first moves towards peace, signals the British government either couldn't, or wouldn't, hear. Instead the Troubles in the eighties were a time of IRA insurgency and British government response, which allegedly included a policy of 'shoot to kill'.

Thatcher's Britain was always a secret state. From dirty tricks against real striking miners to the Chevaline and Zircon affairs, to Spycatcher and the Al Yamamah arms deal, there was a lot going on we didn't know about.  Hidden Agenda takes as its main inspiration John Stalker's investigation into the deaths of six Republican paramilitaries at the hands of the RUC Headquarters Mobile Support Unit, but then expands it into the area that is known collectively as the 'Colin Wallace affair'.

It's all very well done, very convincingly argued and, worryingly, very believable. 

3. Trainspotting (1996)

However most of the bad behaviour in the eighties didn't go on in secret, and most of the violence was not in  Northern Ireland. The real story of the decade is that of post-industrial decline and the retreat of the welfare state.

It's not completely clear if Trainspotting is a film about the eighties. The soundtrack certainly roots it in the dance and Britpop era of the nineties, but the book it was based on is very clearly set in the late eighties. The themes in the film, rising heroine use and fear of AIDS, against a background of unemployment and social decay, are also clearly those of the eighties. Indeed, the film is such a trawl though the decade's cliches, from skinheads with pit bulls in the park, to druggies nicking TVs off old people, that it's pretty close to being a parody.

However, just as it surfs the fine line between glamorising bad behaviour or making the main characters too obnoxious to be sympathetic, it gets away with it. We'd see a lot more of Danny Boyle over the next couple of decades, culminating in 2012 when, along with Trainspotting musical collaborators Underworld, he contrasted his nightmare vision of Britain in this film with a look at all that is best in out society in his London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

2. The Long Good Friday (1981)

Made in 1979, only a delay in release actually made this an eighties film at all. However when you look at what it is about, it's perhaps the most eighties film of all. Bob Hoskins is Harold Shand, a gangster who wants to turn his back on his Sweeney world of petty crime and go legit. His plans are a merger with bigger American outfit and, get this, rejuvenate London's docklands with a view to holding the Olympic Games there. Yes, this really was a 1979 film.

Of course the main reason to watch the film is to see Bob Hoskins spectacularly losing it, and the screen debut - in a non-speaking role - of Pierce Brosnan. He was playing an IRA assassin, which suggests a bit of a theme here.

1. Pride (2014)

So yes, the eighties were a very grim time indeed. Bigotry and intolerance, government malice and indifference, crime and social decay were all around. But there were also people doing something about it. And that's why this film is top of my list.

We'll forget about the fact that in real life the NUM  didn't actually refuse to accept Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners' donation. They couldn't accept it as their bank account had been frozen and so the group, like every other miners support group, was told to send their money straight to a mining community. There was also almost no prejudice from the miners when the activists eventually arrived in Dulais, but that wouldn't make such a great story so we'll forget about that too. Instead, let's just think how wonderful it is that a bunch of communists who wanted to overthrow the government had a mainstream film made about them, and that it was a stunning success.

They took a few liberties in making the film, but not very many. There is a documentary about the LGSM story, called Dancing in Dulais, and watching it after Pride you can tell exactly who is who, even if most of the actors don't look a bit like the people they were playing.

This is very much a film about activism and activists. The Miners Strike was a disaster for the Left, but as the amazing final scene shows, for activists what really matters is the solidarity. As the police officer says, the miners lost the battle, but as the end credits show the larger war was won: gay and lesbians won their civil rights. I didn't cry in Ghost or Titanic, and only a little bit in Notting Hill, but this scene always brings a tear to my eye: this scene and the one where Bronwen Lewis sings Bread and Roses. Yes, I'm blubbing just typing this. This is exactly what being an activist is all about.

And it's the activists who are now remembered. Looking back on the eighties, the Left lost the political battles, but in the long term we won the war. The man most people under 65 want to be the next Prime Minister spent the decade campaigning for the miners, for peace in Northern Ireland and gay rights. We may all live in the world Thatcher created, but nobody seems very keen on making a film to celebrate that.

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